Photographer captures the faces of rowing on the Schuylkill

073014_rowers_600
Photographer Sabina Pierce pulled rowers aside on Boathouse Row to photograph them with her iPhone that she feels made them more comfortable as subjects for her six-piece photo exhibit titled "Faces of Rowing." (Viviana Pernot/Staff Photographer)

Tuesday morning, Sabina Louise Pierce carried her Vespoli single away from the Schuylkill and put it back on the second rack at the Penn AC boathouse. She helped another woman angle her single to the dock in the strong morning breeze.

She'd just rowed six miles, up to East Falls and back, taking about an hour.

When Pierce saw 72-year-old Joe Muldowney, heading to the dock with his regular partner in a double, 78-year-old Joe Sweeney, she said: "He's on the wall, twice."

That's the front wall of Penn AC, current home of Pierce's Faces of Rowing photography exhibit, which includes portraits of 96 Schuylkill rowers.

For a year, Pierce had been rowing up to people on the river and asking if she could take their photo after they were done rowing. She'd pose them against a simple white stucco wall at the back of Penn AC. The results are on the front wall by Kelly Drive, through November.

Pierce, best known for being Barbaro's official photographer when the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner was at the New Bolton Center after suffering catastrophic injuries at the Preakness Stakes, took up rowing about 12 years ago, she said. She had signed up for a Learn to Row program for $50 through the Mt. Airy Moving Arts Studio. Two years ago, she bought her own used single.

Her goal with this project was to open the often-locked front doors of the boathouses and show the diversity of people leaving the docks out back.

"When I was looking at diversity, I was looking at age and body type," Pierce said. "It was people who were never going to row in the Olympics, just people who love to row."

She quickly realized the diversity extended in other directions, to race, gender, sexual orientation, jobs.

"There's this public perception that it was all white, elite - white boys," Pierce said. "It's not true."

Among the 96, there are former Olympians, a former police commissioner, and a Kelly, lifers and newcomers. Most were smiling and looked relaxed, in varied workout gear. The professional hairdresser was fixing his hair. Almost all the boathouses were represented. Pierce's one requirement was that she would photograph people only right after they had rowed, and they had to give her a quote about why they rowed, many of which were included in the exhibit.

Their most common bond was sweat.

The quotes were as varied as the photos: "It's the best prayer I know! . . . To overcome my fears. . . . Rowing is a sport of extreme beauty and physics. And since perfection is in the distance, the challenge is always present. . . . It requires all of me to be in harmony. . . . Rowing saved my life."

All of those quotes were from women. Men tended to be more basic: "Exercise and I love the river. . . . For blood and glory. . . . For competition. For satisfaction. For camaraderie. For friendship. For desire. For fun."

At least one guy said to meet the opposite sex.

Muldowney is in the exhibit twice because he fell in the river once. He was also there with Sweeney, representing the old guys. But when Pierce saw him in the Schuylkill after his boat had hit a partially submerged log, and realized others were better equipped to help him than she was, she went into journalistic mode, told him to come get his photo taken before he changed his clothes. He showed up.

"It was November," Muldowney said of that day the log hit his rigging. "It stopped me dead and pulled me right off the boat. The water was 45 degrees."

There are teenagers in the photos, too. Pierce passed a couple of Philadelphia City Rowing boats this spring and asked them to come over. That program is for students at all Philadelphia public schools. Among their quotes: "I like shooting for the perfect stroke, stroke after stroke. . . . It's something fun that I could commit to. . . . It gives me a whole new outlook on life in general."

A few people did turn her down, Pierce said, a couple basically admitting that they thought the project was beneath them.

At first, Pierce used her Nikon, but she found people relaxed more if she just talked to them while using an iPhone. A New York rowing club has talked to her about doing a similar project there, and U.S. Rowing, the national governing body, has discussed a five-city project focusing on diversity.

In this city, most were like Muldowney, all-in with the project, even if they hadn't all gone into the river. His quote about why he rows: "It gets me out of the house to my wife's eternal gratitude."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus